Sonny Simmons: Last Man Standing; Introducing Black Jack Pleasanton & Fourth Dimension

Jeff Stockton By

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Sonny Simmons
Last Man Standing

Sonny Simmons
Introducing Black Jack Pleasanton
Hello World

Sonny Simmons
Fourth Dimension
Hello World

Sonny Simmons will turn 75 this year and the range of musical knowledge and influence heard in his playing suggest multitudes beyond the "free" label he usually carries. Dating back to his debut on ESP in the mid '60s, Simmons was a Dolphy-esque, Coltrane-inspired force of nature on alto. Since his personal renaissance that began in the mid '90s and has proceeded in earnest right up to this day, his projects have grown more lyrical, more a product of bop convention than improvisational revolution.

The previous installments in the trilogy conceived by the Jazzaway label put Simmons on top strings and alongside duet partners. Last Man Standing completes the series and finds him fronting a traditional rhythm section (Anders Aarum on piano, Mats Ellerton on bass and Ole-Thomas Kolberg and Torstein Lofthus on drums) in a program of originals and one cover (Tadd Dameron's "Theme for Ernie"). The latter, along with Simmons' own "Janet's Mood," reveal the leader's gentle side while the album's centerpiece, "Black Gardenias," and his signature tune, "Ancient Ritual," hit hard and keep coming. Both styles feature Simmons' scouring tone and demonstrate his mastery of ideas and creative coherence.

Simmons' story started promisingly enough and seems to be finishing in an atmosphere of dignity and appreciation, but through the middle passage, this wasn't the case. Subtitled "The Kirk Heydt Tapes," Introducing Black Jack Pleasanton gathers four discs worth of band rehearsals and small club performances from the private collection of Simmons' cellist during the missing years of 1980-1982. Completely pianoless, Simmons is at full strength, spinning complex solos and matching the tone of the bowed cello for long stretches of spiritually haunted sonorous music. Unfortunately, the sound quality of these authorized bootlegs varies from bad to worse, but Simmons' harrowing intensity cuts through the tape hiss.

In addition to documenting Simmons' missing years as best they can, the Sonny Simmons Appreciation Society has issued Fourth Dimension, a beautifully recorded, world-class solo statement that spotlights the English horn in the altoist's sonic arsenal. On "Ancient Tibet," a 20-minute multi-part opus, the buzzing horn enables Simmons to explore the Indian modes and Eastern motifs his compositions have come to embody. On the title track and "One for Leadbelly," Simmons' alto is tart, full-bodied and informed by the blues.

For four decades Sonny Simmons has distinguished himself as an original, complicated voice in the jazz world. At his lowest point, calling himself "Black Jack" and gigging with local Bay Area musicians when he wasn't forced to play on the street, Simmons played the only way he knew how: as if his life depended on it. Judging by the gifts he's given us over the years, it probably did.

Tracks and Personnel

Last Man Standing

Tracks: Call to Order; Ancient Ritual; La Benedicta; Janet's Mood; Black Gardenia; Melodious Theme; Theme for Ernie.

Personnel: Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone; Anders Aarum: piano; Mats Ellertsen: bass; Ole-Thomas Kolberg, Torstein Lofthus: drums 2.

Introducing Black Jack Pleasanton

Tracks: Disc 1: Zoarius/Red Planet; Red Planet/ Le Purple Dove; Zoarius reprise; Disc Two: Flight of the Wild Geese; Over in the Beyond; Disc 3: Ancient Ritual; The Musical Revolution; One for Thelonious Monk (Take 1); One for Thelonious Monk (Take 2); Ode to Ustad Bismillah Khan; Disc 4: The Flying Cranes; Caribbean Nights; One Pour John C; Saxomania for Strings.

Personnel: Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone; Kirk Heydt: cello; Arnold Young: drums; others unidentified.

Fourth Dimension

Tracks: Ancient Tibet; Light-Years Away; The Lady Who Got Away; The Valley of Lebanon; Fourth Dimension; One for Leadbelly.

Personnel: Sonny Simmons: alto saxophone, English horn.


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